Posts in Psychology

For good, not profit: Kirsten Alexander, editor, Open Field magazine

Issue 3 of Open Field is out now
Issue 3 of Open Field is out now

I first came across Open Field magazine when I was browsing through literary apps on iTunes, looking for inspiration. A philanthropic exercise, the magazine is digital-only, sources articles and art from world-renowned authors and artists, and all funds from downloads go to charity. I spoke to editor Kirsten Alexander about starting a digital magazine.

What gave you the inspiration to put together Open Field magazine?

This is a shameful story, but the truth isn’t always flattering. In September 2010, The New Yorker released a tablet version of their magazine using Adobe software. That was a big deal. Wired magazine had released their tablet version in May 2010, but it was a tricked-up and complex object, one that required an interest not only in the content but the possibilities the software and tablet format allowed — which makes perfect sense given their readership. Navigating Wired on a tablet was, for most people, hard work. The New Yorker was not. They offered a simple, clean magazine; one that was unthreatening and familiar since it so closely resembled their print version. They did something we take for granted now, which was to let the technology serve the content. What they offered was breathtaking. It’s hard to remember that only four years later.

Now, my partner Dave and I love magazines. And Dave has been working with technology and design since before he was old enough to employ. In 2010 he was running an agency that consisted of him and two staff members. (That agency, The Royals, now consists of five equal partners and about 25 staff.) So when Adobe made their tablet software available to developers he suggested we create a magazine. Here’s the shameful bit: I scoffed. He wanted to explore the software and suggested that I (with a background in editing and writing) could fill the pages. I said words were more than filler, look at The New Yorker! The print magazine space was too crowded, and they’d all be making tablet versions now! We could not compete with that! And etc. He said that if I could come up with an idea, he could make the magazine. I’d barely stomped out of the room before I thought of an idea to which I was instantly wed. The idea was Open Field.

The lesson here, if I’m in any position to offer one, is that technology will, of course, serve the big players. But it does — and I hope always will — allow almost anyone a voice. (The ‘almost’ is that you need learnable skills, time and tools.) You just have to know what you want to say.

All writers and editorial/design staff volunteer their services, and funds raised go to CARE Australia. Was the idea of a subscription-based app where funds go to charity always on the cards?

Yes. We had skills but no money. And my idea was that whatever we made had to be for good, not profit. I wanted to use this technology to show the work of talented women from across the world, and then give all the money we raised to a charity that helped women. So I decided I would work as the person who gathered people who wanted to show and share their work for the benefit of other women. When I swallowed my pride (see above) and explained this idea to Dave he said it was doable but that it was good I wasn’t running a business.

Open FieldHow did you choose the charity?

I’d seen an advertisement for CARE in which they spoke about the work they did with women in developing communities. It’d prompted me – before we discussed making a tablet magazine — to ask why they would give money to women rather than men. I’d thought people in need were people in need, gender irrelevant. I looked at CARE Australia’s website and they explain their reasoning there — it’s convincing, based on fact, and I’d urge anyone who wonders ‘why give to women’ to take a look. So, CARE was front of mind when I thought of Open Field.

You’ve released three editions of the magazine with the third just launched last week. They are themed. Why did you decide to source contributors by theme?

Content by women to raise money for women was a good, clear agenda but we knew we wanted to make three issues — a trifecta as a gift to charity — so I thought a theme would differentiate each issue. So the first theme is Change (CARE works to change lives), the second is Place (people in one place giving to those in another), and the third is Body (since women have a complicated and significant relationship with their physicality from birth). A theme is useful to the contributors, too. Being told ‘write about anything’ is not helpful …

What attracted you to the digital-only format? Did you ever consider a print version?

I love print. I’ve worked with print books and magazines, and I read print daily. But selling an iPad magazine through the iTunes stores offers easy international distribution. Whereas distributing print is a nightmare, and regularly the downfall of a great object.

Open Field really stands out because of its outstanding and high-quality content. You’ve featured the likes of Claire Messud, Anne Summers and Emma Donoghue, along with debut writers, and a range in between. How do you go about sourcing content? Do you do a lot of editing as submissions come in?

In this instance, sourcing is begging. I write to women I admire and I beg, plead with them to write for me, allow me to include their photographs, their song, their poem … And I am shameless and relentless. Tediously persistent. One contributor, when she finally agreed to write an essay, said in her email that she was doing so ‘only because you are so politely insistent’.

I have a list — an insane, blue-sky list — of women whose work I adore, from people whose every book I’ve read to people I’ve only recently discovered. I scour the internet, go to galleries, read and read. My list includes every one of the women in issues one, two and three, and all the women who declined. And I have no words for how grateful I am any time someone says yes or (amazingly!) when a talented woman offers her work.

And editing, yes, I edit. Some people are edited more than others. I love to work with words. It’s all I know how to do. So this part of the job is a delight for me.

Open Field is unusual because all its contributors are women. With the Stella Prize, women are now more in the limelight in terms of their writing. Why did you decide to go women-only?

We had a specific agenda — but good creative work can come from anyone, anywhere. It’s just that we don’t always get to see it/hear about it. The world doesn’t offer equal space under the spotlight for men and women. So prizes like the Stella, the Bailey’s, PEN prizes that focus on writers of colour … anything that brings attention to the work of people who are not straight white men is a step forward, an evolution. I enjoy work by straight white men (and I know it’s appalling to describe them as such, but for the purposes of this question I will): Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ian McEwan, a million artists, filmmakers and musicians have changed and bettered my world. But it’s limiting if these are the dominant voices. We all deserve more than that, as creators and consumers. I hope that one day women-only prizes are not required, but right now they are.

Digital magazines have often suffered because of poor design and poor readability. How did you combat this when putting together the publication?

Simplicity was our goal from the beginning. We wanted to make an accessible, open, easy-to-navigate magazine where the focus was on reading, viewing, listening. No bells and whistles. The ‘how’ part is entirely the work of talented designers and developers. They make simplicity look easy, and it’s not.

Many magazines online have been slow to take up the idea that they can not only incorporate text, but digital media elements too. One of the exciting things about Open Field is that it includes visual artists, filmmakers and interviews. How difficult is it to integrate all these elements?

There are lots of difficulties with making a magazine for iPad and iPhone. We’ve wrestled with single-issue versus subscription, with software (we moved away from Adobe), licenses, donating directly to a charity from the iTunes store, with scrolling versus not scrolling, with resolution each time a new version of the iPad came out … And here kudos is owed to The Royals who, with the designers and developers, solved every single one of these problems at their own expense while running a really busy company. Without them, there is no Open Field.

But, to your question, the magic of incorporating film, sound and text is, again, the work of talented designers and developers. What they do is amazing. We take so much of their work for granted now, and we’ve grown used to improvements coming so often and so fast, but being able to read on a tablet or phone or computer, being able to listen to music that way, view art that way, is astounding. We shouldn’t lose sight of that fact or grow blasé about it.

One of the challenges of making publications these days is getting them noticed. How do you go about marketing? And has it been effective so far?

OpenField1Well, since we have no money (everyone involved generously works for free), I’m the marketer as well as the editor. I’m not very good at it. We talk about Open Field on social media through my channels, The Royals’ channels, all of the contributors’ channels, CARE Australia’s channels, send out press releases … I apply my polite insistence with digital and print outlets. We’ve been blessed to receive coverage through ABC radio, the Daily Beast website, the Wheeler Centre, Dumbo Feather, The Big Issue, Anthill and MacWorld magazines.

It helped to win an award (MADC, Best Digital Content). Word has spread through goodwill, which is fantastic. And we’ve raised a lot of money for CARE, which was the goal, so that’s a success!

But my initial concern that the magazine space is crowded (which is a good and bad thing) remains true. Whether you’re looking at a physical shelf or the iTunes store, there are so many publications screaming for your attention. It’s hard to stand out. I wish there was a sure-fire way to do so.

You’re an editor by trade. What have been the joys for you in launching Open Field? And were there any unforeseen challenges?

It’s a joy to share the work of these contributors, designers and developers. It is a privilege to work with talented people. I am repeatedly humbled, awed.

It’s a joy to work on something we know will bring benefit to others. We love knowing we’re raising money for CARE’s programs. And we love knowing we’re showing the work of incredible women to people who may not have seen/heard of these writers and artists before.

Any challenges we’ve faced have been those anyone faces when dealing with new technologies: lack of money, juggling other jobs, that we’re spread across the globe … But none of that is insurmountable. We made three magazines. We gave money to CARE. CARE uses the money to do good.

The only thing that would be better was if CARE was no longer needed, if the world found a way to redistribute money, food and water so that the charitable goal of giving no longer made any sense … Money raised from a magazine can’t do much more than touch the sides of the problem of global inequality. Obviously.

What next?

The three issues of Open Field are about bringing a problem to people’s attention, bringing creative work to people’s attention, and raising money for charity.

But three is where we stop with this expression. I can’t ask people to be any more generous than they already have been. People have said nothing but good things about Open Field as a digital magazine and we’re thrilled with that. But we’re curious, hyperactive, insistent people so we’re thinking about what might come next under the Open Field name. We’ll stay true to the early-technology notion of doing good, and to the worth of sharing creative work, but the form that takes … well, it’s exciting to think about.

 

For more information on Open Field magazine, and details on how to download the three issues, visit the website or search for the publication in iTunes. Each issue costs $4.99 to download.

I have an article, ‘Fire in the Belly’, in the latest issue, No. 3, of Open Field — where I talk to Australian women writers about anger and how it can incite or hamper creativity. Issue 3 has just been released on iTunes.

Thanks to writers Jo Case, Angela Savage, Emily Maguire, Martine Murray, Emma Chapman, Annabel Smith, Fiona Wright, Patti Miller, Krissy Kneen, Amanda Curtin, Zena Shapter and other anonymous contributors for your candid and moving responses.

This article originally appeared in the June-July 2014 issue of Newswrite magazine for the NSW Writers’ Centre. Subscriptions to the magazine are available to Centre members.

 

Shyness is nice: the beauty of inarticulation

An autobiography of Christos Tsiolkas
A biography of Christos Tsiolkas

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, David Marr did a wonderfully incisive interview with Christos Tsiolkas, author of Dead Europe, The Slap and, most recently, Barracuda. Throughout the session, in response to Marr’s questions, Tsiolkas took many minutes to speak, occasionally with his head in his hands as if trying to squeeze out the answers. The loud silence filled the room. But when he finally was able to seize the words, his ideas were rich in detail, nuanced, worth waiting for. Marr quipped that ‘he writes loudly and speaks quietly’.

As I waited patiently for Tsiolkas to frame himself, I realised how rare this was: the chance to see a writer composing, having the courage to be uncertain, to not reach for the quick answer, to feel, as Tsiolkas said, a ‘real sense of responsibility … to what language means’. While Tsiolkas initially saw his writing as an effective way to channel rage (against himself, against others), he also wanted to fight off the ‘bad habit’ of being nice. Marr responded: ‘But you are nice, aren’t you!’ Being a writer, and performing in public, is so often about trying to reconcile these contradictory forces.

In her memoir Shy, Sian Prior uses this perceived dualism as a literary device. She intertwines the thoughts of Shy Sian (the interior monologue of a woman whose hands shake at parties, who’s always on the periphery, who runs for cover when things get too rough) with Professional Sian (the radio announcer and interviewer; the teacher; the activist; confident in front of crowds). When Prior takes to the stage or the street, she’s always anxious her shy version will seep through, but Ms Professional usually comes to the rescue. The whole book is searching for what Prior is really afraid of. Rejection? Grief? Being alone? Vulnerabilty?

If you’re feeling shy, you’re worried about something. If you’re a persistent worrier, you’re anxious. If you’re anxious, your mind enters into a pact with your body, sending it into the world with an armoury of self-protective physical responses. Danger! The adrenaline, the sweating, the rapid breathing, all preparing your body to run. Ensuring your hands will shake but your legs will move faster when you need to take off.

Except that you’re never sure why you needed to take off so fast in the first place.

Shy is the first book by Sian Prior
Shy is the first book by Sian Prior

What Tsiolkas does, in those long moments of public hesitation, is let us in, share some hidden part of him. These days, there is much pressure on writers to be perfectionists in all aspects of their lives. Not only on the page but under the spotlight too. To have the right answers. To be funny. To give the audience what they want. To be entertaining. But vulnerability can be a powerful thing.

In Brene Brown’s very popular TED talk (over 15 million hits) on vulnerabilty, she interprets shame as the ‘fear of disconnection’. While Prior in her memoir may be keen to do all the research and categorisation (shyness vs introversion vs social anxiety), the residue of her writing, the success of her book, is when she meditates on loneliness and what it means to feel ashamed, to wear a mask in public — and how she tries, often unsuccessfully, to get beyond the ‘I’m not good enough’ to build relationships with others.

It’s something I’m all too familiar with. A year ago, my first novel was released. It’s about a 14-year-old girl caught between the private and public worlds. It’s about characters who fail to connect. But most of all, it’s about the grey area: those gaps between what the characters want to do and say, and what they actually manage. As the time came for the book to be released, there was the slow dawn of dread: that I would have to stand up in public and articulate. In the past I had quit jobs, taken to my bed, manipulated and evaded, to avoid exposing myself. I had stayed in my comfort zone. Behind words. A computer screen. Like Prior I had run from a party in my teens, a panic attack in the car, paralysed. I had called on Professional Kirsten many a time, to various degrees of success. But I had never stood up for myself.

Tara Moss's memoir The Fictional Woman covers some of the same ground as Sian
Tara Moss’s memoir The Fictional Woman covers some of the same ground as Sian Prior’s Shy

It wasn’t looking good. The first call came out for radio interviews, appearances at bookshops, public readings. The fear in my guts started to bleed out. My brain quickly sought angles and innovative ways to say no. Like Prior, I was a master of the what ifs. But then it finally came to me. If I couldn’t stand up and talk about my own book, where could I go? I know! I could be cultivated as mysterious, hermit-like, Patrick White. Who was I kidding? A debut author can’t do that these days. Perhaps that was the problem. Like Prior, I was shy and mysterious — even to myself. I gave myself a pep talk. I had chosen this career as a writer. I had been lucky to be able to do it. The process, and the result, was a joy to me. It was something to share. And in the end it came down to six very small and extraordinarily powerful words: ‘Whatever I do is good enough.’ No what ifs. No buts. No calling in sick. Leave it at that.

Tara Moss’s memoir, The Fictional Woman, is a good companion piece to Shy, and shares some of Prior’s themes: how pain is written in and on the body; how others’ perceptions can be elevated above your own; how beauty can be worn as a shield; and how science, stats and semi-truths can be interweaved to make a compelling narrative. But in both these books, what it all comes down to is sharp writing. While Moss’s book is themed around common (mis)conceptions, Prior uses wonderful sleight-of-hand to draw me in and push me away: lists, short chapters, vivid description, strong characterisation, positing herself as the unreliable narrator, juxtaposing the two Sians in interviews, bold statements, wry humour, and the charm (and betrayal) of falling in and out of love:

On the computer screen we could be nutty, nuanced, nonchalant. Nothing seemed to be at stake, nothing required except to entertain each other with words. We told each other stories from our past, we compared our reactions to novels we’d read, we even offered tidbits of regret about past relationships. Writing to Tom, I felt weightless.

 And in one of those early emails, when I confessed to being shy, he simply replied: As Morrissey says, shyness is nice.

 I felt like I’d been found.

A year on from releasing just_a_girl, a piece of my identity has clicked into place too. The Land of Writers is where I feel I belong. Writers are weird, shy, crazy, eloquent, bumbling, provocative, curious, fringe dwellers — and often drink too much. Just like everyone else I like, really. As I challenge myself on the festival circuit, many writers have come up to me, confessed their own fears, keen for guidance. They’re shy. They’d rather be looking on. It doesn’t come naturally to them. They want to run. I feel their pain. But I can now point to Tsiolkas and Prior and Moss. Do I think any less of them (as writers, as people?) now I see their vulnerable side? Do I judge them critically, knowing what I do? In reality, it’s exactly the opposite. What remains is enormous respect — and a desire to know more about them (as writers, as people). Just read any blog about how to cope with mental illness, how to move through grief, how to come out as an introvert (via Susan Cain), and go to the comments section. People want to see the inarticulate, the not-so-slick, the grasping for meaning; it’s what generates passion and compassion in the reader.

Sian Prior’s memoir may not be a how-to or reveal-all, but it does connect. It dares me to challenge my own perceptions, see beneath the surface, and come out the other end, shyness intact. She has a talk on shyness coming up at the Wheeler Centre tonight. I hope it’s Shy Sian rather than Professional Sian who turns up on the night.

 

A version of this article originally appeared at the Wheeler Centre’s daily blog.

I have a Facebook page too. If you could LIKE I would surely LOVE.

 

 

 

Dawn Barker: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

Dawn Barker, author of Fractured
Dawn Barker, author of Fractured

In the past couple of months, I’ve started a new series — where I review someone’s book, and they review mine — and we put them up at the same time. My idea was for it to be a kind of ‘two of us’ of books/authors, where we find the connections between our work — and our lives. The first wonderful exchange was with Walter Mason (I reviewed  Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the kingdom and he took a squiz at just_a_girl).

This time, I take on Dawn Barker’s popular debut novel, Fractured.

Just from the outset, this review is going to have *Spoilers*. There is so much exciting plot happening in Dawn’s book that I don’t want to pussyfoot around it…

I recently became familiar with Dawn Barker’s work, as part of a posse of writers in WA  (Annabel Smith, Amanda Curtin, Natasha Lester, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, to name a few) and her book featured in Friday Night Fictions (August issue). Fractured also often featured in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, where it was a hot favourite with reviewers, and Annabel Smith did an in-depth interview with Dawn.

Reading Fractured brought up all kinds of memories. Nothing prepared me for the emotional and physical onslaught of having children. Pregnancy was tough. I spent the first three months pretty much unable to stand up due to so-called ‘morning sickness’ (god, that term doesn’t do it justice) — twice! Before the second pregnancy, I engaged in some heavy-duty magical thinking and decided that if I just wished hard enough, I surely couldn’t get that sick the next time. It was worse!

I learnt the true meaning of the term ‘shit a brick’ (constipation, OMG!) and then, just as I was starting to enjoy putting on copious amounts of weight and eating carrot cake every day, I found out I had gestational diabetes, which put me on a strict and boring regime of no sweets, rice, pasta, and involved injecting myself in my wiggly stomach each night.

After I gave birth (lucky for me, quick and straightforward: knew those dancing hips were going to come in handy at some point), I had the pinks the first time. I was joyous (verging on manic I suspect). The second time, I got the blues. I thought it would be easy peasy the second time around. No troubles with breastfeeding. Relaxed. Settling and swaddling a cinch. But no. GG decided she would not sleep unless in my arms (or my husband’s). For the first three months, due to various people pleading with us not to lie in bed with her, my husband and I alternated nights of trying to sleep half-sitting up on the couch. For the first three months, I never got more than two straight hours sleep.

I fought the definition of postnatal depression at the time because I thought ANYONE would go nuts having to endure that kind of sleep deprivation for so long (this is not to dismiss the idea of postnatal depression as a serious issue, though, for many women). It got to the point that, even when I had the chance to sleep, I just couldn’t seem to work out how.

FracturedWhich brings me to Anna, the central character in Fractured. Anna doesn’t sleep either. The world leading up to getting pregnant and giving birth is shown to be one of illusion, of unrealistic expectations. Highly organised, nothing seems to go to her often rigid plan. Her birth plan is ignored. Her feelings for her baby are not the way she had hoped.

She feels isolated and cornered, unable to communicate with her husband, Tony. He leaves the house to go back to work pretty soon after she returns from hospital, not understanding that she is afraid, anxious, and on the verge. She doesn’t have the language to ask him to stay. Or to ask him (or anyone) to help. The amount of responsibility she takes on completely destroys her.

And on top of that, the reader gradually learns that Anna is contending with something equally serious. She is starting to hear voices, urging her on an increasingly paranoid and soul-destroying route. Her son is not yet six weeks old. But she cannot protect him from her thoughts.

I was familiar with postnatal depression but had never heard of postnatal psychosis. Dawn Barker is also a child psychiatrist so her insight into this condition (and Anna’s character development) is crucial. The book also takes us into some disturbing contemporary hospital practices, including giving Anna ECT without her permission — in a very short timeframe (when she’s in no position to contest the decision). The idea that this is possible, that a patient’s rights are systematically stripped when they enter hospital for care, is terrifying.

The book’s clever structure, that interweaves chronology, and various characters’ stories, means Fractured takes a while to reveal important moments, and there’s a real sense of doom and mystery surrounding Anna’s uncharacteristic behaviour. It’s a cliffhanger of a book, in every sense of the term.

It’s also a book about blame. Certain family members are quick to withdraw from Anna, unable to reconcile her actions with their definitions of acceptable boundaries to cross. Tony wrings himself dry, wondering at his own absence, his selfishness, his culpability in the desire to escape family for work.

Self-blame can be the most poisonous thing of all. Anna condemns herself for not living up to her own ideas of what a ‘perfect mother’ should be. In just_a_girl Margot, Layla’s mother, shares this black-and-white way of looking at the world. When looking at Layla, she sees her own failings reflected, rather than a child who deeply loves her and is desperately seeking her attention. By continuing with her blinkered thinking from when Layla is a baby, Margot misses out on all the good things, unable to see beyond her own limited view.

Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin was a big influence on Dawn Barker's novel
Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was a big influence on Dawn Barker’s novel

I was excited to read that one of the main influences for Dawn when writing her novel was Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. It taught her that a mainstream novel could take on highly emotive and harrowing topics. I read it when writing just_a_girl and found it changed my whole idea of character too. I realised that Margot didn’t have to be likeable but her way of thinking needed to be believable (if misguided). The way she perceives Layla is, from early stages of motherhood, influenced by the fact that she can’t breastfeed, she feels guilty, she is i
solated in the community, her husband is often away working, and her mother was no role model at all. She crucifies herself rather than acknowledging that it’s damn hard.

It’s also good to get a husband’s insight in Fractured. Dawn’s third-person narrative means she can fly in and out of all the characters’ lives, exposing their dreams and perceived failings. I can only imagine how hard it is, too, for the significant other like Tony who get no sleep, haul themselves off to work, feeling guilty at the sight of mum looking so exhausted and fragile (but hey, the experience is not like this for everyone, I hope!). I remember my husband leaving our house for his first day of work after my second child (at six weeks), and pleading with him to stay. Still operating on no sleep, I breastfed my daughter in tears for an hour, as my two-year-old son ran rings around us, asking for all the things he knew I couldn’t provide with a baby latched on; I had no idea how I would get through the day, and all the ones after that. In the end I called my best friend and she turned up, all action-stations, made lunch, sat me outside, told me everyone felt like that (in a sympathetic way), and those feelings drifted off for a while and I saw that I just had to get through it a bit at a time.

The death of a child remains a taboo topic. It’s not something people want to contemplate, let alone talk about. But this book opens up the subject for debate. The reader is constantly being forced to confront their own questions of morality, wavering backwards and forwards, and it’s a mark of Dawn’s skill as a writer that we can condemn and be sympathetic to Anna at the same time, asking: at just what point, is she ultimately responsible for her own behaviour?

You can read Dawn Barker’s review of just_a_girl here. I’m very curious to see what a child psychiatrist thinks of Layla!

If you’ve read Fractured, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Were you familiar with postnatal psychosis? Any other novels dealing with this issue, or postnatal depression? If you’d like to ask Dawn any questions, fire away! I’m sure she’d be keen to answer them.

Move away from the computer: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr The ShallowsWhenever I move into a new house (and there have been many: 23 houses, give or take), for the first week I revel in the surroundings. The space. The views. I sit in various places. I observe what’s outside the windows. I lounge in the backyard. I notice where the sun falls, and lie in it.

By the end of the first month, I no longer notice. That space I created has already become cluttered. I look through the window but I don’t see what’s out there. I know what’s out there. I start living inside my head again.

In Tony Eprile’s article ‘Open Your Eyes: Seeing like a writer’ (March/April 2013 edition of Poets & Writers Magazine), he talks of the importance of sitting still and observing:

Simply paying attention is something anyone can do, but it requires training and patience, a Buddhist quietness of mind that allows one to look steadily and assiduously, to see and not just recognise. It requires an emptying of thought and an opening to vision … Look closely, and slowly, at the world, and it will reveal itself to be quite different from what you once imagined it to be.

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak MemoryHe goes on to talk about Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory that describes in gloriously delicate detail ‘the slow glide of a raindrop off a leaf’.

When I travel, things are different. The newly minted world has colour, texture, life. I carry a journal, write every night trying to recreate the day, and looking back, my words are always vivid and evocative. But I can’t seem to do this in my backyard. I don’t notice what’s happening to plants. I want to learn how to write about my everyday life in the same way.

Many writers are talking these days about the impact of the internet and social media on their daily practice. The constant feeling of being interrupted. The distractions. As I read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, I became increasingly aware (read: alarmed) of how using my laptop (iPad, iPhone) was affecting not only my work but the way I interact with my family. I find it increasingly hard to switch off. In our kitchen, once the domain of toasters and kettles and slow cookers, the benchspace is lined with modems, various sized cables and different items charging all the time. As I do the dishes, the iPhone podcasts from the Wheeler Centre (only 98 more podcasts to go!).

While I apparently work three days a week, on the off days my laptop sits on the bench, dinging every time someone posts on Facebook or Twitter or enters something in iCal or even sends me an email (how old-fashioned). As I read to my kids, or bash on musical instruments, I have one ear out for an update.

Of course, I know I can change all this, I can adjust all the settings, but what bothers me is that I find it very hard to commit. Each time I hear that ding I get a rush of adrenaline; like it’s a news update. I feel compelled. Even though it’s very rarely a message that requires urgent attention — or any attention at all, really. I also feel queasy, as if I’m gambling into the early hours, while I’m pushing buttons.

There’s no doubt. When I have whole days away from the computer, I start to feel calmer. I start to notice. My writing takes on unusual shapes and forms. I feel completely peaceful when I have uninterrupted time for reflection.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lt_NwowMTcg&w=560&h=315]

Nicholas Carr argues that the way we use the internet is changing how we process information, and even the way our brains work:

The mental functions that are losing the ‘survival of the busiest’  brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought — the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument…’

And what about memory? I feel like I don’t use mine much. I haven’t even bothered to remember my home phone number (after about 15 houses, I gave up) because I can store it on my mobile phone. I don’t need to look at a map, remember the address of where I’m heading, because I’ll just punch it into the GPS. But Carr argues that this kind of laziness means we are losing the capacity to create and store long-term memories:

The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement.

I don’t want to abandon social media, blogging, ebooks and internet research altogether. But after reading Carr’s book, I’m reluctant to continue using my computer the way I do. It’s a process of seduction. I let myself get distracted. But I feel used and abused later. I want to be focused.

While being able to research while not leaving your bedroom is pretty exciting (for an introvert like me), I’m now debating whether internet research really helps my writing process. Perhaps it’s better to head out to a library, to focus in on one thing at a time, to just sit and talk with people, to let ideas percolate. When I start researching on the internet, I always feel overwhelmed. Because I am interested in everything. I want to make connections everywhere. Traditional research seems to involve discovering the root of an idea and then branching out. Internet research seems to involve getting the whole tree and desperately pruning down. I need to set boundaries, as with all other aspects of my life.

When I’m older and grey, I won’t be reciting reams of poetry like my grandfather did. I wonder, as my short-term memory starts to fade, what will start to pour out?

The lure of introversion: QUIET by Susan Cain

Quiet_Power_of_introverts_Susan_CainI’m having a pyjama day today. I’ve had a couple lately. Every now and then the world gets too busy, I get run-down and I jump into bed (I try not to take my laptop – too often). The kids are at child care so I can luxuriate in nothingness. Sleep. Read. Try not to think too much. Recuperate. When I was a teenager I used to need pyjama days a lot. Each year in high school, I’d take one day, and it would turn into a week. I would lie on the couch and watch morning TV, then the soap operas, then vegetate. I’ve always loved my mum for understanding that I needed to do this. As a kid I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn’t need parental expectations, I had enough of my own. I was a hard worker, a passionate student and wanted to excel. This downtime kept me going. There’s a reason people call them ‘mental health days’. But I wonder, does everyone need them?

I’ve recently read a book that has changed my perspective on the world, and given me real insight into the way I approach things. Susan Cain’s QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (she also does a great session on TED). It’s become my Bible that I want to carry around and refer to all the time. It’s certainly explained a lot of my behaviour for the past 41 years. Cain focuses on introversion not as a form of shyness, but how we respond to external stimulation. Most introverts prefer, and get off on, quiet environments. They prefer one-on-one conversations over group activities, usually D&Ms (deep & meaningfuls), not social chitchat. They enjoy time alone. They like working in spaces where they have their own office (and can shut the door), where they can focus right in, without distractions. All of this is so familiar to me.

But problems can arise because these days there is great pressure to be an extrovert (especially when you’re a writer, an often introverted profession), to be a great public speaker, to work the room at events. While I don’t think Australia is quite at the level of the US (where it’s almost seen as a stigma to be introverted), many grow up thinking that to be successful they need to be a ‘people person’. It makes me laugh thinking back to my first job interviews as a teenager, as I always said this about myself knowing it to be key, but even then I felt like it was a deceit.

Susan Cain talks about the power of introspection at TED
Susan Cain talks at TED

As I grew older, I put more pressure on myself to take on roles that involved a public life (information officer, marketing) but in the end it was exhausting. What I really wanted was to be an editor or writer, to work on projects, to be thorough and demanding and immersed. And as a freelancer working from home, I’ve created that space. The digital world has opened that up to me.

When I worked in the public service, offices were being removed, everyone was going open plan, all staff were being trained to be trainers, brainstorming was the ‘in’ thing, the constant noise was deafening, and no-one ever got any work done. Cain systematically goes through many of these ideas (open plan, brainstorming, group activities at school) and argues that often the end result is not the best outcome (either for introverts or extroverts).

There is also a great deal of pressure on parents to have social children who fit in easily and make lots of friends. Even at kinder level, my son is doing talks to the group. Many parents enrol their kids in whirlwinds of extra activities after school like dancing, soccer and music. But what about the child who would rather stay at home and lie on the couch, reading? In the school holidays I used to take a stack of books, wherever I was, and find a comfy corner. We’re going to the beach! Swimming! The sun’s shining outside! It was very hard to drag me out…But I was passionate about words. And I was completely, blissfully, happy exploring those worlds. And still am.

Now, somehow my introverted husband and I have managed to raise two extroverted kids (there’s another story in itself – it really helps at parties when your son know all the kids’ and parent’s names) but the important main point of QUIET is that introverts should be left alone (in many senses), not forced to change, and can even teach others in their own ways. Without introverts, we’d be missing out on many writers, artists, researchers and scientists who step back and look at the world from a different angle.

Social media is an interesting space because it is an easy way for introverts to become extroverts. It’s much easier to approach others, to comment, to be part of the conversation, to self-promote. But it can be too easy too. When I opened my Twitter yesterday I saw a tweet that I don’t remember sending. I thought I had been hacked! Kirsten Krauth read a book by Kirsten Krauth. It had gone out to everyone! It really brings solipsism to a whole new level, doesn’t it? But what had happened was that I had marked my own novel  in Goodreads (ie I had ‘read’ it) and Goodreads sent that tweet off via Twitter without me realising. The ludicrous nature of that tweet really brought it home. As Cain points out, there is a point when I need to stop talking. And I’ll be ironic and use my blog to say that.

It’s time to get back down under the doona and start on the pile of novels I’ve got beside the bed.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU AN EXTROVERT OR INTROVERT? DO YOU NEED DOWNTIME? HOW DO YOU MANAGE IT ALL?

Do you remember the first time? Part 2: readings + The Voice

You can pre-order my book, just_a_girl. Just click on the pic.
You can pre-order my book, just_a_girl. Just click on the pic.

I’m one of those people who would rather die than get up and say a few words. I think this is in part genetic (my grandmother on my mum’s side and my grandfather on my dad’s side were both content to sit in corners and observe at social situations, and confessed their fears to me of standing up to speak) but also influenced by my experiences in primary school.

I don’t remember being self-conscious until about Grade 4. I feel like I can pinpoint the moment it began. When — as my character Layla takes up the narrative in my book — I had a teacher who decided to conduct a class experiment. Mr S told me to go outside and pick up rubbish. A strange request but I was a dutiful student (pretty much). When I returned I went to my desk as usual. Later in the day he smashed his ruler down in front of me and got me to stand up in front of the class while he accused me of hitting and hurting a small boy. This was so against my nature that I threw it off for a while, but then he got a student to go and get the little boy in question, and he lied convincingly. I felt stranded and confused. Did I actually do it? Without realising? When I sat down, my teacher revealed it was an experiment. To see how boldly I stuck to the truth. To see if I changed my story. The class all had to write about me (and the scenario). I felt completely exposed.

And recently I realised: when I stand up in front of an audience now, I feel like I’ve done something wrong — even though I haven’t. It’s a hard thing to shake off. Of course, a therapist may say I’d feel this sense of dread anyway (many writers do). So, when I finished the book, I realised I had to confront it. The public/private persona. The exposure to strangers. Writers are expected to speak and be comfortable speaking (even when this is a completely different skill to writing). I heard a saying recently, ‘hiding in plain sight’, and I relate to this well. Every day I confront it. The need to compose myself.

Harrison Craig on The Voice
Harrison Craig on The Voice

I’ve been hooked on The Voice lately. This show is my guilty pleasure. I watch all the auditions. I watch them again on the net. It’s the only TV show I get really addicted to. I love singing, and distinctive voices. But when I’m watching it’s as if I’m searching for something. For clues. And I realise I’m fascinated by that moment of connection. When the singer touches the audience (or judges). It’s about letting yourself be vulnerable. Being unique. Allowing emotion to move through your body. It is a mystery to me.

Now, singing and dancing are different from speaking. I could get up on a stage and sing and dance in musicals at school. The Wizard of Oz. Godspell. Musicals meant you could hang out with older boys (I went to a girls’ school) who played guitar. There was a freedom there. But I never auditioned for a play. I guess, people who stutter would understand this. It seems a different part of the brain handles song, as opposed to speech. When I get nervous, I go mute. Not just my voice, but my brain! I can’t access what I need when asked a question in front of people. Many times at school and university I had to leave the room. For fear of not being able to find the right words.

But recently it all came to a head. I was asked to do my first reading of the book (a preview) at the Castlemaine Word Mine with Simmone Howell and Ellie Marney. I knew that this was make or break time. That from this point on, leading up to and beyond the launch, it was only going to get harder. Or easier. Depending on how the night went. And you know what? I drove home pumping my fist at the moon and screaming ‘Fuck, yeah!’ because I got to the other side. Where it actually felt good. And here’s what I learnt.

Join a writers’ group 

Even though I’ve written my first novel, I’ve never had any group feedback. I chose a research masters to avoid classes (of course). One on one feedback I can handle. But in Castlemaine I stumbled upon the most wonderful group. All experienced writers. All willing to be both gentle and pernickety. I started to tentatively read aloud. I couldn’t look up from my page. But I started to hear my own voice.

Say yes first and panic later

Q&A with Kirsten Krauth, Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell, Castlemaine Word Mine
Q&A with Kirsten Krauth, Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell, Castlemaine Word Mine

Make a commitment to doing the talk. All writers deep down really want to share their work. While I didn’t write my book for an audience, it has ideas I want to share. Find out as much detail as you can about the event. How long will you read? Are you on with a panel? Who’s on first? Is there a Q+A? Can you get an idea of the questions?

Practise for a week

Choose an excerpt from your book that you really love, and that has strong narrative drive. As a fellow writer told me, don’t go for beautiful words. They may look good on paper (and the reader will appreciate this) but they inspire daydreaming. Take your audience on a trip; include them in the journey. Read your excerpt out loud, once a day, for a week leading up. Learn the words that you stumble on and change or eliminate them. Write down where to pause. Write down where to smile. Reminders are great. Most importantly, write yourself an intro, even if you have to write ‘Hello! I’m Kirsten Krauth’! For me, the stumble is that initial opening. Once my voice actually comes out, I’m getting there…

Good old NLP + love your toes

Neuro-linguistic programming seems odd. Replacing words and concepts with others. Too good to be true? But every time you say ‘nervous’ to yourself or friends and family, replace it with ‘excited’. I did this and it worked. Couldn’t believe it. By the time I got to the reading I was pretty fucking excited. But actually, something weird happened and the nerves seemed to evaporate as the (very long) day wore on.

Moments before I stood up to read, I concentrated on my feet. They were dug into the ground. I scrunched my toes up (another tip from a friend) and thought only of them. When the time came my feet were happy to move me from A to B.

The art of performance: become your character

When I hit the stage, my only goals for the night (other than turning up) were to slow down and look up from the page once. But as I started to read the practice paid off. The words and timing seemed effortless and as I was reading in first-person, I started to play with the voice of 14-year-old Layla. I started to embody her, and she started to embody me. It turned into a performance rather than a reading. As we moved together, I actually started to enjoy it. Character acting. That’s what it was about.

Invite your friends and family

I’ve had lots of conversations about this one. Most writers agree that it’s easier to speak to a room full of strangers; and to read from a script. But as my eyes furtively darted from the page, I began to see people I know. People I like. People who had given up precious time to turn up on a cold night and listen. I saw they were smiling. They were keen. They were encouraging me to keep going. And this was an amazing help.

I wasn’t in a classroom being humiliated or attacked. Things had moved on.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU A NERVOUS (READ EXCITED) OR COURAGEOUS PUBLIC SPEAKER? ANY TIPS OR ADVICE? HAVE YOU EVER BEEN BLOWN AWAY BY SEEING A WRITER SPEAK? HAVE YOU EVER WISHED YOU COULD SINK INTO THE FLOOR?


PS And … the exciting news is that you can now pre-order  just_a_girl online (it comes out 1 June). I’m really excited about the cover. Although I originally didn’t want a girl on the cover, I was talked around. It’s dark and techie and murky — not girlie — and represents the book well, I think. If you can’t afford to buy a copy, and let’s face it, many people can’t, it would be great if you could request it at your local library. That way, they can order it in:-) Or, if you want to get a review copy for your journal or blog, let me know! It’s also available as an ebook.

Addictive films: Silver Linings Playbook + Shame

Michael Fassbender, Shame
Michael Fassbender, Shame

I always thought ‘sex addict’ was a term made up by Hollywood’s testosterone-fuelled stars like Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen to explain away lascivious nights out on the town, to excuse raucous behaviour. But Steve McQueen’s intriguing and powerful film, Shame, has made me rethink it in terms of addiction. The film hinges on Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a New York executive, who lives to pick up.

There’s hardly a moment in his day when he’s not thinking about sex: he prowls around his co-workers; he watches porn on his computer when he gets home; he masturbates frantically in the office toilets.

But there’s nothing appealing about his world. Conversations with women. Friendship. These matter little. All he wants is to get the next hit. A shag up against the window before the woman leaves his apartment. The faster the better.

But when it comes to a woman he might actually like? He can’t do it. A memorable scene has Brandon going out on a date. While she questions him on relationships, he is unable to answer, but remains honest; it’s not what he’s looking for. Making the mistake we all make, the woman takes it as a challenge; she can change him. But later, when the clothes are peeled off, he is for the first time unable to respond sexually. Any hint at intimacy and he is terrified.

Steve McQueen’s films are not easy to watch. Hunger (which also stars Fassbender and won the Caméra d’Or award for first-time filmmakers at Cannes) is a visceral exploration of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike. As he starves, you almost feel your own body wasting away as you watch it. Shame too focuses on the body and how it can destroy you, your sense of self, your ability to reach out to others.

And then there’s the concept of shame itself. I’ve often wondered about shame. Some people feel it acutely; others never experience it at all. When does it begin? Where does it come from?

Chronic shame usually originates in childhood, and uncovering the experiences that led to shame can help relieve shame, as can engaging in new experiences that foster a sense of goodness and worth. Shame is sometimes rooted in experiences of a sexual nature, whether consensual or not, that were, in the child’s perception or understanding, not accepted or acceptable to adults; that is, children who engage in sexual activities, or who are abused sexually, may develop a sense of shame about their role in these acts, if adults do not take steps to reassure them of their essential goodness and innocence, and especially if adults shame them on purpose. Some level of shame usually reveals itself in anyone engaged in therapy. Becoming aware of our shame is the first step towards working through it. (GoodTherapy.org)

Bradley Cooper + Robert de Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Bradley Cooper + Robert de Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

While Shame is a complex and revealing look at addiction and mental illness, Silver Linings Playbook is more a Hollywood-does-crazy with a bit of Strictly Ballroom and Dirty Dancing thrown in — so the cineplex audiences can stand up and cheer at the end, and not worry about bipolar too much. I got caught up in the hype of seeing our Jackie Weaver playing it opposite Robert de Niro (and though she has about five lines to say, on repeat, she holds her own, and is nominated for an Oscar). I’ve always been somewhat doubtful that Bradley Cooper can act. I admit it, cock-jock US actors don’t do a thing for me, even though I enjoyed The Hangover. I like my men slightly strange, or awkward, or darkly brooding or, well, foreign. Cue Johnny Depp or Javier Bardem or that guy who’s the kind-of boyfriend opposite Lena Dunham in Girls.

Anyway, I retract my opinion of Cooper. He manages to be intense and vulnerable at the same time, in a character (Pat) who’s also addicted — not to shame this time — but to intimacy. After some time in a mental institution, he’s fixated on getting his wife back and addicted to the notion that her love will sustain him (even though he nearly beat her lover to death). 

I thought the scene in the film where Pat hears a song (‘Ma Cherie Amour’) — his wedding song; the song playing when he almost kills his rival — and goes nuts in a psychiatrist’s office was played for laughs (the crowd I was in responded that way, perhaps because of the elevator-music appeal of the song) and was interested to hear more about triggers.

A trigger can be thought of as anything that brings back thoughts, feelings, and memories that have to do with addiction (like a computer reminding a sex addict of porn). In addiction research, these are often simply called cues … triggers not only bring about responses that make you think about the drug. In fact, over and over in learning and addiction research, it’s been shown that triggers actually bring back drug seeking, and drug wanting, behavior. As soon as a cue (or trigger) is presented, both animals and humans who have been exposed to drugs for an extended period of time, will go right back to the activity that used to bring them drugs even after months of being without it. In fact, their levels of drug seeking will bounce back as if no time has passed.  (Psychology Today)

So there you go. Perhaps the movie wasn’t being far fetched. Of course it’s hard to break down a mental illness into two hours of viewing pleasure. The peaks and lows, the repetitive behaviour, the joy and shame: they have to be condensed. Or turned into a hoe-down with funny dance positions.

I’m wondering now if I have any triggers. They are not so obvious. But there are songs where I always cry in the same spot no matter what I’m doing or thinking. Leonard Cohen’s Anthem is one. And now I’m thinking of that song, I’m thinking of its connections, what it triggers in me, of my aunt who loved that song, who died of breast cancer a few years ago in her early 50s, she was an aunt, a godmother and a best friend, who died the day after I went to see Leonard Cohen sing at the vineyards, who was so sick she couldn’t use her ticket, so I heard that song and lay down under the stars that night, and thought of her, and the next day as I moved through her death, his words floated with me, and they became her anthem in a way, and my way of coming to understand what losing someone so precious might mean, words that helped show me how I might begin to resurface:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? DO YOU HAVE ANY EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS?

OR HAVE YOU SEEN EITHER OF THE FILMS? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS…

Meet the locals: author Jon Bauer

Author Jon Bauer, Rocks in the Belly
Author Jon Bauer

I remember first encountering Jon Bauer in a session, with Fiona McGregor, at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on writing about mothers. As you know, this is a topic that continues to engage me (on many levels) and I was intrigued because it was unusual to have a male panellist (a refreshing change, actually), and he spoke eloquently about writing female characters.

After his debut novel, Rocks in the Belly, was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2012) and won the Indie Award for Debut Fiction (2011) it became one of the first books I downloaded onto my Kindle. A mistake, I now realise, because I want to share the damn thing with everyone!

It’s a stark and brooding novel with a mesmerising and seductive mix of young boy and adult male voices. Reading through responses on Goodreads, it’s one of those love/hate books, the kind I think I want to write. I mean, really, does anyone just want an indifferent response? If you’re willing to trust the author to take you on a dark journey, this one is beautifully structured and carefully constructed. As Jon intended, it embraces and then repels you.

Jon has written a couple of great articles for Newswrite magazine — on the author Ray Bradbury (who recently passed away); and on the art of researching the second novel — and shortly after moving here, I heard he was also heading to town, to a little village called Chewton just out of Castlemaine. I spoke to him about the move (he started off in the UK) and how he goes about writing such memorable fiction.

You’re originally from the UK and have recently moved to Chewton. What attracted you to the area?

I think living in rural England. Australia is home now (Melbourne for the last 11 years) but I was always going to need some nature and space around me. Castlemaine isn’t far from Melbourne, but far enough that it has its own vibrant community. A garden and veggies and animal life, and a full view of sky makes me happy in a way that lattes and hipsters don’t.
Do you find living here has helped your writing?
Nope. Yes. Sort of. I’m busier here, where I thought I’d be ensconced in privacy. But knowing I can retreat whenever I want gives me a lot of comfort. I’m writing a lot right now though because I’m coming to the end of my second novel and can’t keep my hands off it.
Jon Bauer, Rocks in the BellyHow did you come up with the idea for ‘Rocks in the Belly’? Was it shaped by your own family at all?
Rocks is based on a picture I saw on a mantelpiece years ago. The image was of a young foster child with an intellectual disability. She had died, and the family who took her in really missed her.
I kept that image in my mind for years and it bubbled up again one morning while I was lying in bed looking up at clouds. In terms of the shape of my own family, I suppose Rocks has an emotional authenticity, in that I was completely befuddled by the family I found myself in, and very aware that I was bottom of their list of priorities. Do you hear violins? But otherwise, it is that fictional weave of authenticity and invention.
There are many confronting moments in the book where the reader wants to look away, step back. How did it feel going to those dark places, entering into moments of violence, brutality, cruelty, misogyny (and pain)?
At times my hands were shaking as I typed. But I felt purged afterwards. I think, early on, I wanted to punish the reader. The book softened a great deal though as I redrafted it. People are so multi-faceted, and all too often characters are polarised in films and in literature. It’s important to me to write the essence into my characters that we are all capable of almost everything. How else would murder, war, rape and brutality transcend time, geography, and culture?
As for misogyny, that was something I watched extremely closely in the book. It is important for me to go to the places in society that are unacceptable. I am writing about child abuse now, among other themes. What mattered to me with Rocks, is that it was not a misogynistic novel. Which I steadfastly believe it is not. Chauvinist characters, evil characters, racist characters, they’re all okay in my book, and can sometimes do more to highlight injustice and bigotry than writing an idealised character. But there are writers who write chauvinistic books, and racist books, and don’t even realise they’re doing it.
You mentioned that when you were writing the novel, you did an acting course where you were encouraged to improvise. How did finding your voice and experimenting with it here affect the way you were developing characters?
That is a big part of why the protagonist is less likeable than he might be. That acting course (Meisner) was a permissive space where I could explore my darker side. There was a moment in the writing where the protagonist did something small, like drop a piece of litter. But feeling anxious of keeping the reader sweet, I sent him back to pick it up. Then I thought, bugger it, drop the litter. It sounds small, and the moment isn’t even in the book anymore, but it was a turning point.
I wrote Rocks to walk a tricky line between compelling and repelling the reader. It’s a heady mix, kind of like doing the splits. I won’t have got the balance right for all readers.
‘Rocks in the Belly’ mixes the voices of a young boy and his adult self beautifully. How did you conjure up these two versions? Who emerged first?
Rocks is based on a short story I wrote, so the adult came first, but at times in the story, you can hear his voice lapse into younger language as he recounts the past. When I was coming to write the novel, I knew I had to try the younger voice. I wasn’t confident I could do it, but once I started it poured out. Kids are easy to write, I think. Just bring out your most narcissistic and associative side.
The book is essentially about vulnerability masked as something else — all the characters (and all of us) share these traits to some degree. Do you find as a writer you are stripping off the mask in some way?
Fiction is a safe place, so there’s no unmasking. But I am shining a light on the fact we’re multi-faceted, as I said. And that ultimately, most violence and anger comes from pain and woundedness. Also that childhood is brutal, no matter how happy you think yours was.
People don’t like you to talk negatively about the halcyon world of childhood, but it’s important to normalise the ambiguity and complexity of all spaces: religion, parenting, family, marriage, love, childhood, sex … We like to simplify things, and usually for the better. But they aren’t simple. Ambiguity is a larger place, and allows a lot more freedom in life, and in story.
You’re currently immersed in your new novel. What’s the process? Do you research extensively? Or do you hit the ground running once you’ve found a character?
Both. This novel took a long time to find the story. I knew I wanted to write about a man. Then he became a man going blind. That led to a period of research, which was long and interesting, and confronting, but ultimately inspiring. Then just writing the words. Lots of them. It ended up being 160,000. I’m now stripping it back and shaping and grooming it. Down to 116,000, but I want it lower, if it’ll let me.
Are you a writer who likes to stick to a routine, who finds comfort there, or do you embrace spontaneity?
Routine shmootine.
We’ve talked in the past about the importance of play. Is this something you incorporate into your writing process?
Creativity IS play. Certainly initially. If you aren’t largely enjoying it, you’re doing something wrong.
You seem to be always drawn to the psychology of young boys? What is your interest in psychology and this particular age group?
The more I write the more I see themes. The key ones, I think, are that I write children (of both genders) as brutalised heroes. I tend to write the elderly as vulnerable, and the adults as flawed and negligent. That seems to be the over-simplified gist. And children make great narrators, and compelling protagonists. Who can’t cheer on a child character?!
In a ‘Newswrite’ article (‘Writer on Writer’) you wrote of how you were inspired by Ray Bradbury. What other writers do you go to for inspiration?
Susan Sontag described writing best when she said that, ‘It feels like leading and following at the same time.’ I try to live life like that too. Otherwise, I’m a buffet reader — dipping in and out of many writers. Mostly, I read non-fiction: psychology and ontology. I think I’ll be a therapist one day, and am hellbent on gathering more and more information on that unassailable thing — life. Fiction is a good place to do that, both writing it and reading, but I devour books on how to live betterer.
HAVE YOU READ ROCKS IN THE BELLY? OR ANY OTHER FICTION THAT IS BOTH REPELLING AND COMPELLING? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like to meet another local writer: Adam Ford. As Castlemaine has such a vibrant artistic community I’ll be doing more of these interviews in the coming year.

Writing Mothers: Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson
Author Susan Johnson has recently published her novel, My Hundred Lovers.

Susan Johnson is an author of seven novels, and also non-fiction, and has recently released her latest, My Hundred Lovers. She blogs regularly on all aspects of writing and the process of launching her book.

I remember reading an early work of hers, Flying Lessons, and revelling in its fierce characterisation and descriptions of Queensland. She was always a writer who excited and challenged me, and I kept an eye out for her latest works.

Susan describes Flying Lessons here:

The book, set in Australia, has two heroines, modern-day Ria Lubrano and her Edwardian grandmother Emma James. Ria Lubrano, who “came into the world with bones plotting mutiny”, suffering from a literal and metaphorical film over her eyes, is vegetating as a jingle-singer, a voice without an identity or even a complete song, her sense that life is just “a series of disengagements”. She is preoccupied with the loss of her brother Scott, who has drifted out of touch with his family and turned by degree into a missing person. She is also engrossed by the story of Emma, who married a Catholic boy and was renounced by her archetypal disciplinarian father. Read More

Nothing like a good spanky

 

Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method
Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method

In the opening scenes of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method we see Keira Knightley (as Sabina Spielrein) play mad. There’s no doubt about it. She’s hysterical. She bends forward at the waist, dry-retching as if she’s swallowed a wild chimpanzee. Her teeth chatter. She swims in a fishpond, cackling loudly, covered in mud, as the hospital’s male attendants prod and entice her. As the calm doctor Carl Jung applies his new method, the ‘talking cure’, she reveals very quickly that her father used to take all her clothes off (the first time when she was four) and beat her. And the revelation that fuels her sexual energies from then on? She used to like it.

(Note to self: never strip and humiliate children in case they develop serious belt fetish.)

From then on, the film ignores Spielrein (after a bit of hanky panky she is cured! she is cured!) and become a turgid account of the relationship between Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), reduced to a kind of one-upmanship of I’ll show you my dream if you show me yours. The dreams they dissect together are so obvious I’m surprised they don’t feature teeth falling out or going down steps into the basement or snakes writhing in water; you know, you’ve all had them. But these dreams are symbolic, see, with a capital S, because of the horrors that are to come (the holocaust): there’s a wave of water about to crash down.

Despite Spielrein’s brilliant intellect and challenge to the authority of Freud, she’s mainly pictured in corset (falling delicately off nipples) strapped and bent over the couch while Jung flagellates himself on all accounts. I’m not a prude. I quite like to watch. But I want to know why this turns her on. What is the connection between humiliation and sexual pleasure? What is the even deeper connection to her father? And why does Jung administering this punishment apparently offer her such freedom? Is it really her only way to connect to the world? Cronenberg ignores all of this. It’s so much easier just to film a bit of coy S+M in a mirror.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary

I’m trying to think of other films that employ a bit of S+M. The wonderful Secretary springs to mind, enlivened with a bit of humour and deadpan performances. Then there’s Salo (that I’ve always been meaning to watch, but the thought of it…), David Cronenberg’s own Crash (an unforgettable piece of filmmaking based on JG Ballard’s novel) and The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert’s usual knockout performance. (Serious fetishists have their own opinions, of course. See the serious discussion here.)

But look I’m no expert. The idea of masochistic sexual play makes me want to choke myself (now hang on a minute). Some may say any fiction writer in Australia is a masochist. But I think if it came to the crunch, I’d be much more interested in being a sadist. There’s a world of opportunity there.

For a more interesting look at a brilliant woman confronting mental illness, see Jane Campion’s classic biopic of Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table. Actress Kerry Fox goes inward and quiet; it’s a mesmerising performance to watch. I understand she’s not seen as an hysteric, and she doesn’t get off on S+M, but it’s an incredibly moving and powerful film, in its understated way.

Anyone into a bit of S+M? What are the most interesting examples of films and literature that explore it (you can post anonymously of course!)?

Or have you seen A Dangerous Method? What did you think of Spielrein’s character? The relationship between Freud and Jung?